Speaker Nancy Pelosi is speeding to finalize a multitrillion-dollar coronavirus relief package, hoping to put the bill on the House floor next week — a timeline that even some senior Democrats dismiss as unlikely.
Pelosi had hoped to release the draft bill — which some Democrats worry could cost upward of $2 trillion — on Friday. But that timeline is slipping as members from all corners of the caucus pressure leadership to stuff the ballooning bill with their priorities, many of which were left out of the previous four aid packages negotiated with Republicans. Senior Democratic aides said Pelosi and the committees will be working through the weekend on the package.
Speaking to members on a caucus call Thursday afternoon, Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said a vote next week is possible but not certain.
“We have an emergency of such magnitude that no one has ever seen before. This is probably the worst situation that is only getting worse and should be getting better,” Pelosi told reporters earlier Thursday.
The California Democrat has been on a private lobbying blitz, participating in hourslong phone calls with the full caucus and then separate briefings with moderate and progressive lawmakers, as she tries to build support for the aid package. Still, several Democrats have privately complained they have no idea what will be in the final legislation, waiting like most of Washington for when Pelosi releases the text.
“There's been a lot of calls, a lot of conference calls, but there still is concern among folks that we can't just have a top-down style,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said in an interview, noting that he’s mentioned the issue to Democratic leaders since the caucus is unable to meet in person to give feedback. “I’ve personally said, ‘Make sure it’s not only top-down on this.’”
And Pelosi said Thursday she isn’t negotiating with Republicans or the White House at this point as she builds a consensus within her own caucus first. Senior aides say much of the caucus wants the House to proceed first to put out a marker, though the idea has exacerbated concern among some moderate Democrats that the bill could look too much like a costly wishlist with no chance of being signed into law.
Some Democrats also fear they’re being seen as not doing enough during the pandemic, spooked by recent internal polling in battleground districts last month that found nearly a third of respondents said they couldn’t rate the job their member of Congress is doing to address the coronavirus.
House Democrats’ campaign arm briefed chiefs of staff on the polling Wednesday, alarming some staffers who worry voters don’t think their bosses are adequately tackling the pandemic.
Other Democrats briefed on the survey put a positive spin on the polling; 45 percent of voters in battleground districts approve of the job their lawmaker is doing, meaning they just need to be more proactive in their outreach to target the 30 percent who answered “I don’t know,” according to people briefed on the findings. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they disapproved of their member’s job performance, according to Democrats who viewed the survey.
The polling, which took place in battleground districts in April, was conducted on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
There are other political concerns among the Democrats’ most endangered members, too. Many are skittish of a giant, kitchen-sink bill that would force a party-line vote that could fuel GOP attacks ahead of the November elections. Instead, many say they’d prefer Democratic leaders to hammer out a bipartisan compromise with Republicans that can quickly deliver aid back home, even if it’s narrower than they’d like.
“I always like to have something worked out beforehand and get a bipartisan bill, the way we’ve been doing it,” added Cuellar, who is a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition.
Pelosi — who has repeatedly told her caucus to “go big” on the package — dismissed concerns about its cost in her opening remarks on the caucus call Thursday. “How are you paying? No one asked that question with the $2 trillion tax cut,” she said, referring to the GOP’s 2017 tax-reduction package, according to Democrats who dialed in.
The left wing of the Democratic Caucus, meanwhile, has its own set of anxieties. These Democrats are under intense pressure from both their members and the progressive base to deliver on sweeping proposals such more generous monthly unemployment payments, student loan forgiveness or rent relief to the more than 33 million people who are now out of work.
A number of senior Democrats and aides privately say they’re seeing growing momentum for a plan by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, for the federal government to step in and directly pay workers during the outbreak. The proposal has won support from across the caucus, including more moderate members such as Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, as well as economists including former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. A similar proposal has been backed by Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri.
“We will put our bill on the floor, that I can defend, that my people say they need. That’s why I’m supporting any and all measures that protect paychecks,” Horsford said in an interview. “I don’t care if they’re progressive ideas, I don’t care if they’re Republican ideas.”
Pelosi has signaled in calls with members this week that the direct payment proposal — which would likely cost hundreds of billions of dollars — could be included in the leadership plan. But lawmakers and aides say they’re still unsure whether it’ll be in the final bill. One member familiar with the discussions said: “It depends what hour you ask.”
“I’m working very hard to get it included. I think it’s extremely important,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a senior progressive, said in an interview. “This will directly impact the most vulnerable people. It’s just a new way of people making sure they have their jobs and have their wages.”
Democratic leaders, led by Pelosi, have been holding dozens of hours of caucus calls in recent weeks. Pelosi herself spoke to both the Congressional Problem Solvers Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus this week, in addition to dialing into the weekly meeting of Democratic chairs and a separate one with the whip team.
Pelosi and her top lieutenants have given several major clues about the next major package. The centerpiece, they say, will be $1 trillion for cash-strapped state and local governments, some of which are on the brink of slashing public services. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell previously indicated that any state aid would need to be married to liability protections for businesses and employees in the next package.
Pelosi has also said funding for expanded coronavirus testing and contact tracing will be a major component of their bill, as well as new protections and potentially higher pay for front-line workers.
The result could be a Democratic-driven package that draws few, if any, GOP votes on the House floor. Democrats, though, hope it will jump-start negotiations with Republican leaders who have so far insisted that Congress should wait to gauge the ongoing multitrillion dollar response before delivering more aid.
In the backdrop of negotiations, Pelosi and other top Democrats are wrestling with a far different debate related to the coronavirus — when and how to bring the House into full session.
Pelosi has made clear she wants the full House to convene as soon as next week to vote on the next $1 trillion-plus package. But other top Democrats have been less confident that it will be ready by then — or that it would be safe to bring back members.
“We will vote when it’s ready,” Hoyer told members on the caucus call Thursday, vowing that members would have 72-hours notice to return.
Pelosi and Hoyer are in talks with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about how to proceed with proxy voting and remote hearings, to allow members to conduct business without needing to risk spreading the disease by returning to the Capitol. The Senate, with a far smaller membership than the House, returned to Washington on Monday.
Yet a bipartisan deal on that rules package still seems out of reach, according to sources in both parties. Hoyer reiterated Thursday that Democrats would push through the rules change next time the House meets, with or without GOP support, a move many in the caucus have been pushing for.
“I think we should have proxy voting. It's not safe coming from such long distances,” said Lee, who is in her 70s and flew from California for the House vote two weeks ago. “Members of Congress sacrifice a lot and we will continue to do that for the American people, but we have to be smart in how we do this.”